While many countries in the Asia-Pacific have achieved progress in combatting AIDS, Indonesia’s number of cases is growing – thanks in part to politicians who pander to religious conservatives preaching against condoms.
This problem isn’t new. When I first arrived in Indonesia back in 1996, the country seemed to be in denial about the risk of AIDS. At that time, there were officially only 390 cases of HIV, although the University of Indonesia estimated at least 12,000 Indonesians were dying of AIDS annually.
I remember when the Health Minister in 1996, Achmad Sujudi, declared the government would not promote condom use to counter the spread of AIDS because the practice was not culturally appropriate. “The most suitable method for us is counselling and not distributing condoms,” he said. That prompted me – working as a newspaper sub-editor at the time – to come up with the headline: “Minister says condoms don’t fit Indonesian culture.” It’s depressing that more than 25 years later in Indonesia, I can recycle a variation of that old headline.
Indonesia did eventually get more serious in tackling HIV/AIDS, in 2002 launching a national movement against the virus. But there has always been opposition from conservative Muslim groups, who claim condom promotion encourages young people to engage in casual sex.
When a public service ad promoting condom use was broadcast on Indonesian television networks in 2002, there were complaints by conservatives, such as the Indonesian Mujahiddin Council. They felt the ad was pornographic and endorsed promiscuity. The government responded by withdrawing the ad.
This pattern of bowing to pressure has continued. In 2013, the Health Ministry caved in to protests from hardline Muslim groups by cancelling National Condom Week, a program aimed at raising awareness of sexually transmitted diseases. Parliament even summoned the health minister to demand to know why condoms were being handed out to high-risk groups, such as prostitutes.
At the end of 2009, an estimated 333,200 people in Indonesia were living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. By 2020, the number had increased to 540,000. According to data from UNAIDS and the World Health Organisation, the number of people dying from HIV-related causes in Indonesia grew by 102 percent from 2010 to 2020. In neighbouring Malaysia, the number of HIV-related deaths had fallen 42 percent over the same decade, while there was a decline of 38 percent in Papua New Guinea.
In Indonesia’s tabloid media, the word condom denotes scandal and shame. Some recent headlines include: “Police Raid Shared House, Netting Same-Sex Couples and Used Condoms,” “Riau Police Find Condoms and Pills,” “Pervert Nabbed in Ambon, Officer Finds Condoms,” and “Selebgram Serves Guest at Hotel, 6 Used Condoms Found.”
Opposition to condoms has gone hand-in-hand with Indonesia’s rising culture of homophobia. Some radical groups say the best way to tackle AIDS is by making Indonesia an Islamic state so that homosexuality can be outlawed.
HIV is most prevalent in Indonesia among intravenous drug users, especially in prisons, where corruption means that drugs are widely available. About 35 percent of people with HIV in Indonesia are women. Latest statistics indicate that about 68 percent of the country’s prostitutes use condoms.
An estimated 190 million condoms are sold in Indonesia each year, but manufacturers and health experts alike say that public awareness and acceptance of condoms is not high enough.
Indonesia’s sensitiveness toward condoms is perhaps ironic, given the country is the world’s second-largest producer of rubber. Indonesia does have a condom factory, run by a state-owned company called Mitra Rajawali Banjaran, which produces Artika brand condoms. These come in packets featuring a crocodile with open jaws, reinforcing the sexist notion that sex is a predatory act. The vast majority of condoms sold in Indonesia are imported brands, such as Fiesta and Sutra (both made by DKT) and Durex (made in Malaysia).
The anti-condom sentiment is so bad in Indonesia that some international development organisations have had to tone down or alter health projects that incorporated promotion of safe sex, for fear of having their permits revoked by the Home Affairs Ministry.
Nevertheless, condom ads still air on some television networks, late at night, and try to be racy within the limits of Indonesian decency. These ads invariably suggest that condoms imbue married men with sexual stamina, rather than explicitly explaining they stop unwanted pregnancies and diseases.
Where are Indonesia’s pious anti-condom brigades when religious teachers rape young female students? Take the case of Herry Wiryawan, 36, an Islamic boarding school teacher from West Java, now on trial for raping at least 13 female students aged from 13 to 16. These rapes reportedly resulted in up to eight births.
Such cases are not uncommon. In July 2021, a fifty-year-old Islamic boarding school teacher named Subechan was sentenced to 15 years in jail for raping some of his female students. He had told them that sexual relations were a noble religious act that would bring good fortune.
In December 2021, a Quran teacher in Depok, West Java, was arrested for the alleged sexual abuse of 10 of his female students, most of them aged 10 years old. There have been other cases of students being raped and then encouraged to marry the rapist.
Sexual crimes occur across all religions. In January 2021, Syahril Parlindungan Marbun, a trustee at a church in Depok, was sentenced to 15 years in jail for sexually assaulting 20 young altar boys.
Is it the availability of condoms that prompts religious figures to rape children? Of course not – but complaints against condom sales continue, especially in the run-up to Valentine’s Day. In recent years, public order police in various cities have warned minimarts not to sell condoms to unmarried people. Moral vigilante groups have also threatened action to stop condom sales.
“Condoms Are Not Cool”
The decades of conservative opposition to condoms seem to be working. I recently spoke to some Indonesian youths, who told me that condoms aren’t cool. They explained that condoms aren’t considered macho because they feel unnatural and because there is a social stigma attached to buying them. They also said sexually active girls are unlikely to be on birth control because they are too embarrassed or unable to buy contraceptive pills.
So, does the taboo against condoms stop Indonesian teens from experimenting with sex? Short answer: No. Some teenage boys may just be braggarts, claiming they enjoy sex without a condom and withdraw before ejaculation to prevent pregnancy. However, the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection has reported a significant increase in the rate of child marriages during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially among lower-income communities with low education levels. The main factor behind such marriages is pregnancy, as families do not want a daughter becoming an unwed mother. When girls have to drop out of school because of an unplanned pregnancy, they are more likely to remain trapped in a cycle of poverty.
It’s up to parents, schools, and the government to teach children about reproductive health, but that shouldn’t include stigmatizing safe sex.